First COVID-19 hit these catering businesses hard, then a fire took out the kitchen they depended on

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San Francisco firefighters walk by the exterior of a 160 14th St. It was one of several buildings that was damaged in a five-alarm fire in San Francisco on July 28, 2020.

San Francisco firefighters walk by the exterior of a 160 14th St. It was one of several buildings that was damaged in a five-alarm fire in San Francisco on July 28, 2020.

Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

San Francisco firefighters walk by the exterior of a 160 14th St. It was one of several buildings that was damaged in a five-alarm fire in San Francisco on July 28, 2020.

San Francisco firefighters walk by the exterior of a 160 14th St. It was one of several buildings that was damaged in a five-alarm fire in San Francisco on July 28, 2020.

Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

First COVID-19 hit these catering businesses hard, then a fire took out the kitchen they depended on

Chef Siska Silitonga was miles away from San Francisco at a Sacramento campground for the week when she learned the devastating news that the commercial kitchen she operated her business, ChiliCali, from was among the buildings destroyed in an early morning fire Tuesday.

She had promised herself that she would try and stay off her phone during the trip, and had left it mostly off, until she turned on her phone Tuesday morning. When she did, Silitonga found several people trying to contact her about the fire, which destroyed the Be Safehouse kitchen that she and other businesses operated out of at 160 14th St.

“I just decided, ‘Hey, let’s see, what’s going on,'” Silitonga said. “And then of course, you know, all the texts, emails, all the craziness. And I said, ‘Really, is this really happening right now? Is this really happening?'”

The Mission District fire broke out just before 7 a.m. near the Central Freeway. About 160 firefighters working to battle the flames that tore through a number of buildings centered on the northern tip of the Mission District between 13th and 14th streets and South Van Ness and Folsom streets.

From what she’s been able to gather from friends and others, Silitonga knew that the kitchen — along with her own equipment — was completely destroyed. It’s a tough blow to ChiliCali and the other businesses that operated out of that space, a place which Silitonga said had “seen so many businesses grow and [eventually] open their own restaurants. This kitchen has incubated so many businesses that it’s amazing.”

Photo: Courtesy ChiliCali

Chef Siska Silitonga is seen preparing food for her catering company, ChiliCali, at the Be Safehouse kitchen in the Mission District. The kitchen was one of a number of buildings affected by a fire on Tuesday, July 28, 2020, forcing the catering businesses that operate out of that kitchen to look for a new space.

Chef Siska Silitonga is seen preparing food for her catering…

Because of COVID-19, however, the number of businesses working out of the 14th Street kitchen had gone from 12 tenants down to seven in recent months — with only four businesses active, including hers, Silitonga said — and everyone has been struggling to keep their operations afloat. ChiliCali primarily cooked Indonesian food for office catering gigs, going from 300 to 500 orders a day to practically none, once employees began working from home.

“Because of COVID, no offices were doing food anymore for their employees, because a lot of the offices are working from home. So literally we don’t do catering anymore; I had to immediately think of what’s next,” Silitonga said of the early months of shelter in place. “I started promoting myself on social media and said, ‘Hey, if you want Indonesian food, I can deliver.’ So that sort of helped us. We’ve got about a hundred orders a week. So imagine going from 300 [orders] a day to a hundred a week — but at least we can survive.

“And also we do a pop-up on Sundays [at Mission Bowling Club], and so far the Indonesian community has been so, so, so, so great,” Silitonga added, tearing up over the phone. “They’re giving tips left and right. They’re buying [and] showing up. It’s just amazing.”

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Laetitia Verdeaux, owner of catering company Crêpe Madame, also operated out of the 14th Street kitchen, and said she too was struggling to keep her business during COVID-19. Verdeaux said she was shocked to hear news of the fire on top of everything else she’s been dealing with; Crêpe Madame had lost most of its clients due to the pandemic, losing 98% of its revenue by her account.

Verdeaux was considering moving her equipment into storage before the fire since she hadn’t been operating out of the kitchen as much as she had been, but hadn’t just yet. By her early estimates, she lost $20,000 worth of kitchen equipment that was located at the Be Safehouse space.

“It’s hard to rebound at this point,” Verdeaux said. “I just don’t know what path I need to take at this point. Like, is this a sign that I need to listen, telling me maybe it’s time to move on, or fight more [because] it’s not the end. I don’t know. It’s just all these questions in my head right now.”

Verdeaux has worked in the catering business for eight years and had been trying out other options to keep her business going, including a pop-up at Etcetera Wine Bar for three months. She had recently decided to stop, however, because it was yielding just $30 a day in profits.

“When you sell one or two crêpes a day, it’s really [tough],” Verdeaux said. “You try everything you can, you put all your passion and love into your product. And then there’s so much competition at this point, every restaurant needs to do the same thing.”

To add insult to injury, Verdeaux said she had recently changed her insurance policy to save money — and now her equipment will not be covered, she said.

“The worst thing [is] I changed my insurance policy one month ago, because I was paying the maximum premium, and since I was not operating very much at the kitchen, I didn’t need any liability, because I didn’t have much of an operation going on,” Verdeaux said. “I changed my policy to zero coverage for my personal coverage, so I’m not going to be covered for anything I lost. That’s the irony … thinking I was saving money doing this. And then I could have kept my insurance and probably get a good check to buy everything back. But no, at this point, I’m completely screwed.

“It was a bad move, but you know, it’s like, how do you know that there’s going to be a fire and burning everything down? I never thought this was going to happen.”

Eko Kitchen, San Francisco’s only Nigerian restaurant, was also affected by the fire. Owner Simileoluwa Adebajo had recently moved operations to the 14th Street kitchen and is now going to move operations back to her former space for the time being, The Chronicle reported.

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Verdeaux is still considering her next steps, but Silitonga is expecting that she will need to get in contact with her insurance company before looking for another commercial kitchen. But even that next step of finding another space seems just another hurdle to jump over in these times.

“My hope is people keep showing up and people keep buying our food and just keep spreading our culture — that’s the whole thing,” Silitonga said. “I started this because I wanted Indonesian food to be represented in the Bay Area. We don’t have any Indonesian restaurants.”

“Of course, I’m going to find a kitchen, but it’s not that easy. Commercial kitchens are so expensive in the city,” Silitonga added. “And then I even know some kitchens that are not opening right now because of COVID. So I need to find a kitchen and then just keep popping up at Mission Bowling Club. Folks have reached out and said, ‘Hey, can we do crowdfunding?’ and I’m like, I don’t really need a handout right now. I just want you guys to keep showing up, just try my food, you know, come buy my food.”

SFGATE News Editor Amy Graff contributed to this report.

Dianne de Guzman is the Food + Drink Editor at SFGATE. Email: dianne.deguzman@sfgate.com